Depressing News, or Just a Chemical Imbalance?

A psychiatrist named Mark Horowitz is making waves these days by publishing research indicating that there is in fact no substantial scientific evidence showing that ordinary human depression, for which hundreds of millions of people around the world are taking powerful prescription medication, has any connection to the supposed chemical imbalance in the brain for which the standard “antidepressant” medicine is alleged to be a solution. That is to say, there is no evidence now, and there never was any. The entire psychiatric-pharmacological fantasy of treating human emotional problems as primarily physical ailments of the brain that could be corrected with drugs was palpable nonsense from the get-go, defiant of all common sense and human experience. But since common sense and human experience are regarded, by our elite medical experts, as unscientific, it was always easy for the scientists to ignore these in favor of endlessly repeating and re-citing their own inconclusive or even self-refuting experimental research as “the best available evidence” of something that simply could never be proved.

Begin with a false premise, and, as long as you refuse as a matter of professional duty and academic peer pressure ever to question that premise, you can end up wherever you like. And so they have done, for sixty-plus years and running. Nevertheless, as the article linked above explains, while many “mental health experts” — and what makes them experts, exactly, given that they have acted on false premises and inconclusive research for decades? — insist that Horowitz’s claims “are nothing new,” but in fact common knowledge among many researchers, this has not changed the established protocol of prescribing such anti-depressants routinely, though often in conjunction with professional “talk therapy.”

For an example of the effects of lying to yourself forever, here is the story of one Irving Kirsch, a Harvard lecturer and psychologist who has found similar results in his own research into antidepressants:

This year, Kirsch and his colleagues conducted a review of antidepressant studies that were submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration over a nearly 40-year period. It found that only about 15% of American patients “have a substantial antidepressant effect beyond a placebo effect in clinical trials.”

Antidepressants are still widely used in large part because “no one’s found a medication that works better,” Kirsch said.

In other words, Kirsch’s research finds that there is no meaningful evidence to support the widespread use of these brain-altering drugs — and yet he defends the continued widespread use of them on the grounds that “no one’s found a medication that works better.” Works better at what? There’s the false premise at work. Kirsch, who has exhaustively established that the drugs used to treat depression do not work, nevertheless accepts that some kind of drug must be prescribed, since of course depression must be caused by a chemical imbalance; there is simply no other possibility, because the working assumption of his profession for over sixty years has been that “mental illness” is not merely a metaphor, but a literal medical diagnosis, like strep throat or appendicitis. Realize that “mental illness” was never anything but a metaphor, and the entire pharmacological framework of modern psychology — along with the billion-dollar industry that depends on and fosters that framework — comes tumbling down. 

Says Horowitz in response to the predictable criticism and dismissal he has been met with by his professional establishment:

“In my experience, when a critic criticizes me or a coauthor personally, it means that they lack a specific argument against the points made, but do not like the conclusions reached,” he said.

Regardless of which camp his peers fall into, Horowitz said he’s concerned that the stir his paper has caused reflects the troubling way antidepressants are still being marketed to and understood by many consumers: as a simple chemical fix for what is, in reality, a very complicated, multifaceted social problem that can’t entirely be chalked up to brain chemicals.

I would say Horowitz is being far too reserved in his assessment of this issue, perhaps still too invested, academically, in the basic premises of his profession, the obsession with medical evidence for that which is largely, as he himself argues, non-medical in origin.

In answer to researchers who claim that antidepressants might work in hidden ways, by gradually stimulating new brain cell growth, Horowitz offers the following rather commonsensical reply (and I mean that in a positive way):

In studies, roughly half of patients taking antidepressants like SSRIs report a numbing or dulling of their emotions while on the drugs. If antidepressants are changing the chemistry of our brains, thereby producing changes to our thoughts and emotions, maybe they are simply blunting emotional pain. 

“People become depressed because they get into difficulties in life,” Horowitz said. Maybe SSRIs work by effectively interrupting those painful thoughts. 

Unfortunately, such numbing isn’t confined to negative emotions. Antidepressant drugs can also alter patients’ sex drives and increase suicidal thoughts, particularly among young people. It’s still not well-understood why that happens.

“It’s not well-understood why that happens” — because modern science, having long-since detached itself utterly from its mother, philosophy, lacks even the most rudimentary skills for assessing its own evidence in the light of anything but scientific experiment; this is the classic problem of subsidiary sciences being unable to understand, let alone support, their own premises from within the confines of the world of thought issuing from their own self-limiting premises.

It goes without saying, to those capable of such thought-from-outside, that chemically numbing emotional responses in general will often lead to the loss of response and energy in various areas of life, far beyond the intended target of so-called depression, and that it may lead to suicidal thoughts, violent thoughts, general immorality, and so on. 

Allow me to explain. Moral character, without getting overly Aristotelian about this, is in essence nothing but habituated emotional responses. Dull a person’s general ability to experience emotions, by means of chemicals, and you dull or distort his normal emotional responses in all areas, including of course those all-important areas related to judgments of right and wrong, proper and improper, excessive or proportionate, justified or ill-advised. This pseudoscientific fixation on chemically altering the brain as a solution for emotional problems is one of the most obvious and pernicious instances of the way our advancing scientific knowledge runs directly counter to our more fundamental and indispensable human capacity to use our rational faculty.

What this lack of any reliable and consistent clinical proof that antidepressants cure depression actually proves is that for sixty years, with ever-increasing frequency and blind compliance, medical professionals have been routinely prescribing powerful brain-altering drugs that in the vast majority of cases, far from curing any mental illness, are actually causing one, in the sense of artificially, physically skewing people’s natural emotional responses to external stimuli (aka human context) in ways that distort their feelings, thoughts, and behavior, an effect directly attributable to these medically-induced chemical changes in the brain.

But the people who are in the business of making money from “mental health” on a mass production scale would stand to lose one hundred percent of their profits from this most lucrative scam, if the issue of emotional problems were returned fully to its proper arenas, namely private reflection, social interaction, and personal consultation with caring others. Therefore, the protocols will not be changed. Perhaps certain specific drugs will quietly be phased out in favor of different ones that will be alleged to “work better,” but the standard operating model — namely profiting off an obvious falsehood at the expense of the lives and moral functioning of hundreds of millions of human beings — will never be sacrificed. Too much money and power and political advantage are at stake in this matter to allow a little thing like a complete misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the nature of the supposed problem to get in the way of business as usual.

Horowitz says, as quoted above, that “people become depressed because they get into difficulties in life.” Bingo, end of story, or rather the beginning of a much more meaningful and important story of our modern age, if only our medical experts did not have their heads in a cloud of pseudoscience, backwards logic, and career protectionism. That phrase, “difficulties in life,” seems almost cribbed directly from Thomas Szasz, the most significant theoretician on these questions, who famously defied his peers by defining so-called mental illness not as a physical disease of the brain, but as “problems in living.” For more on this issue, treated at a more fundamental and theoretical level, I refer you to my articles on Szasz, whose reputation and career were destroyed in ways Mark Horowitz is unlikely ever to suffer, at the hands of a profession from which he was exiled because he dared, at the start of all this nonsense, to stand up and declare, loudly and without reserve, that the emperor had no clothes. The naked emperor and his professional minions destroyed Dr. Szasz, and buried his common sense views for sixty years. Since the topic is so important, and is receiving new interest, I shall repost those earlier pieces here in Limbo shortly, to save the reader the trouble of digging them up.

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